I’ve been sewing by machine since I was 14, making my own clothes and home dec items. I have been making quilts by hand since 1967 and I never thought those two kinds of sewing would ever cross paths. In the 1980s, I bought a Bernina and at first I was somewhat of a “closet” machine quilter - hoping no one would notice if I put a line of machine quilting in the ditch to save a little time in an otherwise hand quilted quilt. But, I love my Bernina, and I soon began to use it more and more, adding swags and cables, stars and fancy work to both large and small quilts.
I never intended to own a longarm. For years, people have shown me longarm machines at quilt shows. I always smiled politely while I watched, but I wasn’t really interested. And I knew that a big machine like that wouldn’t fit anywhere in my house.
Then a few years ago a man named Todd Brown wrote to ask permission to digitize my Infinite Feather designs for use on a Statler Stitcher. This was a man I had never met, asking me to get involved in something I’d never heard of. Surprisingly, the letter didn’t go directly into the spam folder; I was intrigued by the possibility that quilting designs could be digitized. My daughter, Elisa, does commercial machine embroidery with digitized patterns, so I had some idea what that might mean. I was not going to buy a machine, of course; just intrigued by the idea of offering a few patterns. And what could be bad about offering my feather designs to a new group of quilters? The request came near the end of the year and we were busy with Christmas preparations and the anticipation of finishing and moving into a new house, so I put it off for a while. I would think about it after the new year, when my life settled down.
You know, things never settle down. In the spring, I found myself deep into my workshop commitments and trying to cope with crutches and a broken foot. I asked my daughter Jen to travel with me to manage all the suitcases and teaching supplies for a weekend retreat and then we planned to go on to the MQS show. I thought I should meet this man face to face before I decided to sign a contract. The trip would also give us a chance to see what was happening in the world of longarm quilting. And, as they say, one thing led to another...
We met Todd Brown, Kim Diamond, and Paul Statler and we saw the Statler Stitcher in action. I have to say, I was amazed at what it could do and excited about making my patterns available in this format. It was a good idea. Todd and I agreed to work together and I had done what I came to do.
By the second day, Jen and I were already planning what we could do with a machine like that. We could go into business quilting together, or Jen could quilt for others and I could just play with the machine and quilt a little for myself. The hook was set. I went home just babbling about this incredible machine and how much fun it would be…..
I should mention I have the perfect quilter’s husband. He not only understands and enjoys this art, he also helps in so many different aspects of my business. He is my webmaster, bookkeeper, shipping department, etc. etc. I convinced him that his part in this new adventure could be to take a class on digitizing with me. After all, he was the computer expert in the house and I thought I would need him to explain it all to me when we got home. But, after a short time, I was digitizing patterns for my own use and for sale and teaching Autosketch classes to others.
I’m not sure if it was coincidence or karma, but our new house had a perfect spot in the basement, just waiting for something BIG to arrive. Jen and I quilted two quilts the first day the machine was delivered, and at the same time we could see what a huge learning curve was ahead of us. We spent the early weeks quilting for ourselves, taking baby steps, and learning the Precision Stitch software, but there were several moments that made me take huge leaps and forced me to do something new.
I was teaching at a show in Washington state and was told after I arrived that one evening would include a dinner and auction for local breast cancer charities. I wasn’t aware of the auction ahead of time, but on the spur of the moment, I felt like I should offer something. After all, I had had my machine for 2 months; certainly I could do something! When I offered to donate my quilting services, I said “Please say I’m a beginner.” Instead the auctioneer said, “We’ve just had a fabulous offer!” and included other words, such as “famous, award winning quilter”, and “I’m sure she’ll fill it with feathers...” I was terrified when the bid went to $600! In talking with the winning bidder, I again reminded her I was new to the longarm. She sent a sweet little nine patch quilt and I did fill it with feathers. It was the first quilt I quilted for someone else.
Another early request was to quilt a Coxcomb wall quilt, made from my Coxcomb Variations book. The woman needed to have it finished in a couple of weeks to take to a friend in France. No pressure there, right? I hadn’t quilted anything appliquéd and didn’t have much in the way of free motion skills, so I convinced my husband we needed to digitize designs to fit those spaces. It was an interesting adventure and we polished up our digitizing skills in a hurry.
Also, in those early months, a second donation of quilting services brought a request to design and quilt a wholecloth quilt. A publishing deadline resulted in the need to do free motion quilting to fill the background of a full size sunflower and basket quilt. And a large, random sampler I made for my husband was my training piece for stitch-in-the-ditch. Each of these circumstances pushed me far beyond what I thought I could do and I learned so much more than I would have if I’d stayed in my comfort zone.
My quilting now includes quilts for myself and my family, workshop samples, and custom quilting for others. I always make time for a little pro bono work and have quilted for organizations such as the Alzheimer’s Art Quilt Initiative, National Quilting Association Grants and Scholarships, the National Quilt Museum in Paducah, North American Mennonite Relief Sale, and Quilts Of Valor.
I suppose most quilters make a more gradual transition, but for me it seems to have been a big leap from traditional hand quilting all the way to computerized longarm work. People have been worried that I won’t continue to quilt by hand, but I love hand work and can’t imagine ever giving it up. I guess I’ll be something of a hybrid quilter, using whichever technique seems right for the quilt – hand, domestic sewing machine, free mothion, or computerized – and frequently I mix them all together in the same quilt. My philosophy is that the technique we use to quilt things is not nearly so important as the fact that we DO get them quilted. It’s all good.